12 Tips for a Smooth Road Trip with Kids

When I think of summer, I think of road trips. I grew up traveling thousands of miles every summer in our mini-van with my parents and 3 siblings. Now that I’m married with 2 children of my own, my husband and I are the one planning the road trips with our kids. Of course, we want to have smooth road trips with our kids. It takes careful planning and preparation but it can be done! Are you planning a road trip with kids? If so, here are some tips from a mom who has done many a long road trip with kids – and plans to keep making them for years to come! 

Last year, our family took a 3800 mile road trip with our active 2 year old and nursing 3 month old. We traveled through 7 states and spent 64 hours driving over 17 days.

Last week, our family drove 1700 miles in 5 days with a newly potty trained 3 year old and an active 1 year old. It was a long drive from Indiana to Arkansas but we wanted to be there for my brother-in-law’s ordination as a Lutheran pastor. Long road trips are just what our family does to be together – especially when we are spread across the country!

Some people have called us crazy for making these long road trips, but we make lots of memories this way! We have a lot of fun and our kids are learning from a young age how to be good car travelers since that is just what we do.

I’ve shared some of our favorite road trip activities so now it’s time to follow up with my tips for a smooth road trip with kids.

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Wherever you are driving, with any number of children, here are 12 tips for a smooth road trip with kids.

1. Plan ahead. 

Every parent knows that the more you plan, the smoother things go. Children like predictability and routines so the adventure of a road trip throws all your normal routines out the window – for good reason! Start planning well ahead of time for your road trip. Mark out every stop with how long the drive is. Book any hotels necessary or make other lodging arrangements. Start planning early with some of these following tips.

Nathan & Mom in the car

2. Organize with gallon size bags.

After our most recent 3800 mile road trip, I am a big believer in organizing with gallon size bags. Buy a box or two before you start packing. Gallon bags are a great way to organize activities for your kids. Rather than throwing all their games and things into one bag, organize activities with gallon bags. Put puzzles in one, paper and crayons in another, and assorted toys in another. It makes grabbing things much easier in the car – which helps your children and you!

3. Pack a quick change diaper bag.

If you are in the diaper stage, this is an absolute necessity! Pack diapers, wipes, a changing mat and any other supplies in a gallon bag that you can grab at the rest stop. You don’t want to lug around a huge diaper bag every time you get out of the car. Having a quick change diaper bag ensures you are ready for any stop and saves you time!

If you have a toddler who has just been potty trained, then be sure to pack an extra pair of underwear and change of clothes. You should plan on extra stops if you have just finished potty training! We traveled with a potty seat in our car this past trip and even though we never needed to use it, it was a good “just in case” back up plan.

4. Plan lots of activities to keep your children occupied.

When your children can’t move around, they need to keep busy. Here are 20 of my favorite tried and true ideas for activities to keep your children busy on a road trip. These activities work well for children of all ages!

5. Trade toys with friends.

My friend, Andrea, offered to lend me some toys before we left on vacation. It was so nice to pull out “new” toys that my son had never seen. Nathan was enthralled with the newness of games and toys. Trading toys gives you new toys without costing you anything! I highly recommend finding a good friend and asking to borrow some toys before your next vacation.

Nathan playing with borrowed toy phone

6. Pack lots of food. 

Yes, there are times when the miles get long and you just a good snack! Pack a wide variety of snacks that appeal to everyone in your family. If you can package things in individual size bags (or purchase them that way), it will save you time and keep portions controlled. Don’t forget to pack a cooler with drinks, too. Packing your own food is a great way to save money on your road trip.

If you have a long day of travel, consider packing one meal and eating out at the other. It saves you money plus allows you to have a picnic where the kids can stretch their legs. Before you leave, download the apps for your favorite fast food restaurants to score some extra savings. McDonalds always seems to have free food on their app, and Chick-fil-a earns you free food every time you stop. Almost every restaurant has an app now!

7. Allow yourself extra time.

When you are on a road trip with kids, there will always be a stop that you didn’t anticipate. Add in traffic or construction delays, plus the frequent bathroom breaks, and you have just added an hour or three to your driving time. Know your family and allow yourself extra time – especially if you have a specific arrival time. This makes the road trip much more enjoyable when you are not worried about a time crunch. 

8. Find interesting road stops.

My husband is a history teacher. We’ve started stopping at National Historic sites whenever possible. They are free and have restrooms that are nicer than gas stations. Plus, you can learn something as you walk around and stretch your legs. Who says you have to stop at a rest stop or gas station every time you need to stop? We used the Passport to Your National Parks app to help us find the nearest historic sites as we were traveling and stumbled across some hidden gems. A google search before you leave for interesting sites along the road is a great idea too.

Daddy & Nathan at NPS rest stop

9. Do everything possible you can at one stop.

If you have to stop, make the stop count! When we stop, we attempt to do everything we can at one stop. We use the restrooms, fill up with gas, nurse the baby, change diapers and eat a meal (if necessary). Every time you have to stop and unload all your kids, you add time to your trip. Remember that and do everything you possibly can at one stop.

10. Have surprises throughout the trip. 

When you are planning, plan for some surprises throughout the trip! Surprises are a great way to break up the boredom and whining that comes with the territory of kids. Consider packing a new movie that you can show on your portable dvd player or a special surprise snack. Pack a new book for all of your kids or plan to stop for ice cream as an afternoon driving stop. Having a couple surprises up your sleeve breaks the boredom of long travel days. 

Nathan using garage sale stickers on his do a dot pages

11. Be flexible.

Road trips require lots of flexibility. There will be detours to take and unexpected rest stops. You might have a child have an accident in the car or a destination might unexpectedly be closed. Everything will not go according to plan and that’s okay! Be flexible and create a new plan. Let your children see you adapting as you go along.

That said, my husband has found it helpful to pull up our travel route on Google maps on his smart phone as we drive. He has a great sense of direction and doesn’t need the map help, but it helps him scan ahead for construction delays. Andy has rerouted us many times saving us hours of sitting in traffic waiting for an accident to clear.

12. Have patience!

Road trips are an exercise in patience – for kids and adults alike. Have patience with the backseat bickering. Have patience with the unexpected construction delay. Have patience when things don’t go according to plan. Have patience and remember that you are creating lasting memories with your family. That is why we take road trips in the first place!

 What are your tips for a smooth road trip with kids?

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  1. Great tips always!

    I admit though, I am curious about the housing situation! How is it going?! I hope it’s all going in your favor and you are keeping sane with all the movable parts! Best wishes and blessings Kristen!

    1. Thanks, Christina! I know it’s been quiet here on the blog the last two months, with everything going on at home. We actually moved and closed on both house last week. I’m working on a blog post right now (with lots of pictures!) to share an update. The boxes will wait because I’ve missed blogging. Stay tuned, hopefully tomorrow or Thursday, I’ll have something up on the blog! Thanks for checking in on me! 🙂

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